Challenging Lebanon's freedom to insult

Lebanon is the envy of its neighbors for its high degree of freedom of expression. But some are asking whether this should include the right to insult. The issue is making front page news because of a defamation case brought by opposition leader Michel Aoun against the pro-government Al-Mustaqbal newspaper.
Michel Aoun.jpg
Michel Aoun was called 'a wild dog' and 'a witless idiot,' among other things. © Bilal Jawish - Al Akhbar

BEIRUT, March 13, 2008 (MENASSAT) – Lebanon's tumultuous political arena is no place for the faint of heart. Insulting each other, often by proxy of the media, is a way of life for politicians here. But when opposition leader Michel Aoun saw the front page of the pro-government newspaper Al-Mustaqbal on January 5, he was shocked by the abuse hurled at him.

Aoun decided to bring defamation charges against the author, cultural editor Paul Shaoul, and against journalist Fares Kashana for another article published on January 22. The case is now in the hands of judge Majed Mozaihem who this week decided to postpone the trial until April 14 to give Shaoul's lawyer, Mostafa Fakhoury, time to come up with a formal defense.

Solidarity campaign

The case has already caused considerable commotion in Beirut, with the pro-government media treating it as an attack on freedom of expression, and a group of intellectuals launching a solidarity campaign in defense of Shaoul; while Aoun's lawyer, MP Ibrahim Kanaan, has openly wondered whether turning to the court system to get justice has somehow become a crime in Lebanon.

The article in question was a column Shaoul wrote on the front page of Al-Mustaqbal.

In the article, Shaoul played on Aoun's name in Arabic to suggest he is a barking dog. He described the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement as "crazy, bossy, insolent and impertinent," "obsessed with power, fascism and oppression," and compared him to "the generals of the Banana, the Lettuce, the Tomato and the Pistachio republics."

Shaoul described Aoun as "a wild dog dreaming of the presidency on his knees and begging any possible outsider." He also called him a "witless idiot who should be put in quarantine and under psychological treatment by a medical committee testing his mental capacities because he has become a danger to society."

That was too much for Aoun, who decided to bring charges.

Tit for tat

According to Jean Aziz, head of the political section at Aoun’s OTV, Shaoul's column is typical of what he calls the "Hariri culture."

On Monday, Aziz threatened to strike back by consecrating a daily section of the evening news to exposing negative news about Saad Hariri, the leader of the Al-Mustaqbal party. (The Hariri family is the owner and founder of Al-Mustaqbal newspaper.)

On Thursday evening, Aziz made good on his threat when OTV launched a new section called, "Harirism under the light."

As for Shaoul, he says, "The battle I'm facing is that of all intellectuals."

He describes his own writing as "the language of controversy and differences, and very different from the one based on insults and defamation used by Aoun himself."

Shaoul fears the case to be "an act of personal vendetta," saying that "after the death of Samir Kassir and George Hawi, no one is left to differentiate between the poet and the fighter."

He also fears what he calls Aoun's "soldier's mentality," and wonders what would become of Lebanese intellectuals and politicians if Aoun was to become president.

According to Shaoul, "General Aoun's attempt to subdue the intellectuals in this matter would open the doors of hell."

He expressed his surprise that those he describes as "treacherous" would turn to the courts "as if they were a tool for getting away with murder."

'If not the courts, then where?'

Aoun's lawyer, Ibrahim Kanaan, wondered, "If the one who feels he is a victim of injustice cannot turn to the courts, where should he turn to?"

"Has turning to the courts become an attack on freedom of expression? he wondered.
Many Lebanese intellectuals, including the poets and writers Akel Awit, Abdu Wazzan and Elias Khoury; the actors Raymond Gebara, Antoine Moltaka and Latifa Moltaka; and the movie maker Borhan Alwaiya, have publicly denounced the case, considering it to be a stab at freedom of opinion and expression.

What is clear is that this case is part of a general escalation of the political conflict in Lebanon.

There have been many other cases of defamation charges brought by politicians against journalists in the past three years but none have gotten the attention which Aoun's case against Shaoul has been given in the media.

Regardless, the outcome of this case will help determine once and for all whether there are limits to freedom of expression in Lebanon, and whether there should be in the first place.